Roy Exum: Ellen Does It Again

Sunday, December 27, 2015 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Towards the end of my mother’s beautiful and full life, she would carefully divide the Christmas presents under her tree. Several days before December 25, she would pick out the colorfully wrapped presents from my younger sister Ellen. On Christmas, after a heavy lunch, all of us would open presents except those that came from Ellen, who now lives in Ohio.

About 6 o’clock, after all the guests had left and the massive amount of used wrapping paper was cleared, we would put out Ellen’s gifts and begin to go through them carefully. Each had a story and we would read what Ellen wrote, howl with delight, and savor each one. One year she sent “The Candle of Death (“use very carefully”) and opening each gift was better than a Broadway show.

Mother went to her Heavenly Reward in late August of 2014 and last Christmas things were a little hectic. But earlier this week I got a huge box from her and, as is now the custom, I waited until just before dark on Christmas afternoon before I started. For two hours I laughed, wondered, cried, giggled, sat in disbelief and, as it is always is on the day, great joy!

It is not my intent to brag nor boast but just some of the things that my Ohio “Santa” showered me in love were the following: (Note: The wording behind each are excerpts of the notes that Ellen wrote.)

* * *

YUNNAN BAIYAO – “Here’s the deal. During World War II and Viet Nam, Americans GIs noticed that their Asian counterparts carried little pills that seemed to miraculously keep them alive when gravely injured. Yunnan Baiyao stops bleeding faster than anything on the planet. So the American GIs started carrying the pills … now standard in my first-aid kits. Western medicine has nothing like it, although the FDA tried to “steal” the formula … the Chinese government so closely guards the formula that the ingredients are made in 14 different factorys and then assembled in one top secret lab (probably by slaves!) … Note: in the center of the blister pack is one small red pill. This is for the most serious emergencies … keep these in your glove compartment.”

FOR THE DOGS – “Most of my friends are dogs … like Crusoe the Celebrity Dachshund (great police work!), Marnie, a 13-year-old Shih-Tzu rescue dog with severe vestibular issues who is now a rock star and Dean the Basset …  Native Americans say that every dog has something to teach you and it’s true … if you don’t have a dog, share these with a dog you like … and for gosh-sakes try to get a life that includes a dog!”

RHINE GEIST – “In Cincinnati some people have opened a brewery in a run-down area called ‘Uber Rhine,’ because it’s near the river and the Rhine Geist Brewery (the name means ‘ghost of the river,’ or ‘spirit of the river’) and it has become exceedingly popular. I was in a Whole Foods in Cincinnati to get some pickles (Grillo’s of Boston – you will never have better pickles in this world) where there was this big display of Rhine Geist’s newest limited editions. I was reading the labels when …. What? … No way! … There’s got to be a story here!” (Attached was a handsome bottle of what Rhine Geist calls “Exum Lager!”)

CRESBI CONVENIECE CRATES – These are folding plastic crates that come with an insulated liner. They are the invention of the year! Ellen writes “My friend Linda invented these … use with or without the inserts … muddy shoes, library books, cold ice cream, whatever! Once you carry your stuff in, fold them up and leave then in your trunk. They are pure genius!” (

- - -

Well, there was much more, from three tubes of different organic toothpaste to lip balm to sea-salted chocolate cookies. She included a copy of the runaway best seller, “Humans of New York,” that is such a prize I’ve been reading it for the past three months. There was a big jar of dried beans of all varieties (“just add a ham hock”) and, of course, a lengthy family letter.

“When I was little Mother would take me down to the Red Cross on McCallie Avenue and I’d spend all day making up “ditty bags” for soldiers overseas. I absolutely loved this! Absolutely loved every minute of the entire day ….

“I would go down the rows … a small bar of soap, a Bible, a notebook, a travel packet of Kleenex, a paperback novel, a deck of cards, a plastic comb, a pen …. Back and forth until I pulled the drawstrings tight.

“When I drew it shut, I secretly prayed that whoever opened it next would become happy, that they would feel remembered and cared for in whatever awful place they were in,” my sister’s letter read. “For all I know those soldiers may be gone now but I felt like I was on top of the world when I did that, and Christmas still makes me feel this way … Christmas seems to take the sting out of things.”

- - -

And, yes, Ellen is as right as she can be. I am now the ‘soldier’ who opens the box and – lord help me -- Christmas comes rushing out, swallowing up the entire room. On Friday afternoon I tried to open Ellen’s gifts slowly, savoring her warmth and humor, and by-golly-jingo, this year she hit her greatest home run with misty-eyed me sitting among all the wrappings.


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